Monthly Archives: December 2012

Fluffy Desert Snow

Here in Southeast Arizona there are usually a few snowfalls every winter but they generally don’t amount to much, and the sun usually melts away the snow by noon.

On the last day of this year we’ve experienced an exception this morning. Over six inches of light and insubstantial snow is clinging to every surface and the landscape has been transformed.

It’s a conundrum: how does such light and airy snow cling so tenaciously to tree branches? It seems as if the slightest waft of a breeze would tumble these improbable structures into masses of wet white wreckage, but the porous piles continue to accumulate.


An apricot tree made a pleasing backdrop for a puzzled cane cholla branch supporting an improbable arc of snow:


The snow emphasized the geometry of clumps of agave:


Two close-up shots of Arizona Cypress foliage peering out of clumps of snow:



Sage, Bev’s young female collie, hasn’t seen much snow in her short life. Bev and Sage are home in Nova Scotia during the summer and therefore miss the Canadian snow every year. At first the collie was afraid to venture out into the deep snow this morning, but after seeing me walk through it unscathed she plunged around the courtyard in wide arcs, eating snow and obviously having a good time:





Filed under Arizona, Photos

Nocturnal Eye In The Sky

Take a look at this crop I snipped from a large composite image, courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory:


What I’ve cropped is the southwest corner of the North American continent. Satellite views like this one are useful for gaining perspective on population density and energy usage, two variables which are tightly linked in prosperous (or flagrantly wasteful, take your pick!) societies.

Of course Phoenix, LA, and Las Vegas stand out in this view, but even small towns like Bisbee and Douglas here in my neck of the woods can easily be made out.

I recommend that you take a look at one of the high-resolution images of the entire planet available from the Earth Observatory site:

Images From Nasa

These images were assembled from many satellite images. For each region a view without any cloud cover had to be found. I think the stitched-together results are fascinating and thought-provoking, but what I’d really like to see is two analogous images: one from a century in the past and another from a century in the future. Of course the 1912 view would be mostly black, with just a scattering of lights along the eastern seaboard, but the 2112 view (one of those palindromic years) is difficult to predict. I imagine some emissary from the far future handing me an envelope, saying:

“So you want to see the earth from space a century hence? Take a look!”

I might be reluctant to look. It’d be like asking for the results of medical tests indicating the presence of an incurable genetic disease.

I’d be afraid I’d find within the envelope a view of blackness, with only a few volcanoes and wildfires to illuminate the gloom.

What I would hope to find within that ominous envelope is a view of a scattering of smaller, more decentralized glimmers of light, indicating perhaps that the human race had somehow acquired an infusion of sanity.



Filed under Arizona, Photos

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

The Chihuahuan desert-scrub slopes around Bisbee, Arizona are a patchwork of private land and federal BLM properties. The private land is rarely marked and most of the land-owners are either absentee or don’t have a problem with people traversing their land.

The other day I was walking along a canyon slope north of town, trying to find a usable path. I’d find what looked like a trail but inevitably the path would peter out and become a deer and javelina trail. I was trying to avoid too-steep slopes, patches of thorny acacia, and thickets which can only be crawled through on hands and knees.

I paused and watched a coyote loping up a draw away from me. It looked over its shoulder from time to time to see what I was doing.

Some of the slopes are too steep to walk along, and many are covered with loose scree. Sometimes just getting up to a ridge-top is quite a feat of navigation.

I happened across a lot, a ledge which had most likely been blasted out during the copper-mining heyday. There might well have been a house on the lot at one time, but whatever access lane or set of steps which might have existed then was long gone.

Someone had expended energy on this forlorn lot at one time. A partially-finished concrete-block retaining wall curved across the downhill side of the lot, adding a bit more level area to the ledge, widening a minor notch in the canyon slope.


I noticed that a pine tree had been planted in the earth retained by the wall. It was about thirty feet tall and had a trunk about a foot in diameter. I estimated that the tree was thirty or forty years old. It must have been planted after the retaining wall was built. That pine functions as a date marker. Whoever had plans for that lot was probably working on the wall back in the late ’60s or early 70’s.

What intrigued me about the tree was a rusty one-piece wheel-rim which encircled the trunk:


The only conceivable way that wheel-rim could have gotten there is if the tree as a seedling had been planted within it. The rim was probably intended to protect the young tree from mowers and animals. In another decade or so the iron rim which protected the tree in its youth might doom it if a human doesn’t intervene with a cutting torch or hacksaw. There is a chance that the cambium layer will manage to creep around the wheel-rim and engulf it.

I was contemplating this tree and its possible fate when an elderly woman popped up over the hill and regarded me suspiciously.

“Can I help you?”, she said, a polite landowner’s code for “So just what are you doing here on MY property?”

I tried to explain my presence as best I could, that I was just walking by, taking photos, etc.

I said, “So this is your property?”

“Yes, we own this whole side of the canyon. Our house is right down there.”

She pointed to a house down the slope and near the street.

I said “Well, I’ll walk on, then.”

I imagine there have been very few trespassers on that lot, as it isn’t easy to get to! I later heard from a neighbor that the retired couple who own the property are rather territorial.

This happens to me every so often, but I’m not fazed. If someone wants me to stay off their turf they should put up a fence, or at least a sign!



Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Photos

The Chiloc: A New Cure For Snoring!

Lately Bev has brought to my attention my inadvertent night-time snoring. According to her it sometimes becomes explosively loud. Of course I must take her word for it, as I have no way of knowing the extent and volume of my snores.

Last night she awakened me with an exclamation:

“Jesus Christ, Larry!”

Evidently I had just brought to fruition an enormous snore which woke her up. She drifted back into sleep (snoring a bit herself, I must add!) and I lightly dozed.

I was in a half-awake dream-state, lying on my back, when a computer screen appeared before my eyes, evidently hovering in the air above my face.

With the usual dreamer’s calm acceptance of the most unlikely scenes and circumstances I watched a stream of Facebook posts slowly scroll by on the screen. This one caught my attention:


Or perhaps the photo accompanying the post was more like this:


In my dream-state I realized how unlikely the scenario was, and this sort of realization always wakes me up. Bev was still awake and I told her about my dream vision. We had a good laugh, and both of us resorted to Google to see if there really is such a thing as a chiloc!



Filed under Arizona, Stories

Campground Intruders

Though I’ve never been a hunter, I’ve been around hunters most of my life, both as a landowner and as a walker and camper. I’ll venture a guess that eighty percent of hunters are responsible folks who respect other peoples’ rights and follow the game laws. That other twenty percent, though, are troublesome to deal with at times. These heedless folks are almost all men.

Hunting is seen by these borderline sociopaths as a way of escaping society’s strictures. Away from the onerous presence of wives and neighbors these hunters tend to drink excessively and indulge in their proclivities, one of which is a love of guns in all their mechanical glory. Many of them have accomplished a feat of mental gymnastics: riding around on a gun-equipped ATV, usually a four-wheeler, comes to be considered the height of coolness and masculinity rather than as a craven relinquishment of one of humanity’s finer activities, which is walking while carefully regarding the landscape and its inhabitants. Henry Thoreau liked to use the word “sauntering”.

You can imagine that my having opinions and attitudes such as these results in some odd encounters. I try to be civil and focus on signs of humanity in the renegade hunters I meet, but this does involve some effort. It’s like bridging an inter-species gulf.

A few weeks ago Bev and I were heading south from Utah, looking for warmer weather and killing time before the house in Bisbee was vacant and ready for us. We decided to spend a couple of days in the Dragoon Mountains, a favorite locality of ours. The Dragoons are about an hour’s drive southeast of Tucson. Here are a few photos from our stay.

Typically jumbled granitic rocks of the Dragoons; I’d hate to be there during a major earthquake!


An Arizona Rainbow Cactus growing within a bed of moss; I’m still not accustomed to seeing cacti growing with ferns and mosses!


A Gulf Fritillary butterfly taking its ease in the sun:


Whorled and contorted grain of a recumbent oak trunk. Notice how cattle have burnished the surface by rubbing against the surface for many years:


But back to our hunter encounters. I’d really rather write about subjects more congruent with my interests, but sometimes stories demand to be told.

We knew that deer-hunting season had begun, but with our usual optimism we thought that the Dragoons was a large enough area to mitigate against unwanted interactions with hunters. Not so, evidently!

One chill evening, after the sun had set, Bev and I had retreated to the van. Bev was checking her e-mail and reading Facebook posts on her cell phone while I was engrossed in a book. An LED lamp provided sufficient illumination.

Sage, the guardian collie, began to growl softly. Bev managed to get my attention, not always an easy task, and said, “Larry, there’s someone standing out there!”

I looked out of the window and saw a man standing about twenty feet from the van. “Oh, hell!”, I thought, “What could this guy be doing?”

It seemed odd that the man would be just standing there without calling out, especially during hunting season. He risked being shot. I reluctantly exited the van and approached the man. “Hey, what’s up?”, I asked him in a neutral tone.

I felt myself at a disadvantage, being barefoot and all. I was curious, though, and wanted to know why the man was standing there. He was in his sixties and seemed to be a bit “off”. We had seen him earlier trying to turn around a long airstream trailer hitched to an SUV. We thought he had seen that we were camped at the last site on the road and decided to check out another site. I looked over his shoulder and saw that his vehicle and trailer were parked down the road a ways.

He said, “Oh, I was supposed to meet a friend here and thought maybe this was his van.”

Rather unlikely, I thought! He doesn’t know what his friend’s van looks like? His story sounded vague and improvised.

I replied, perhaps in unfriendly tones, “I guess you’re mistaken.”

“So what are you doing here,” he asked. “Rock-climbin’ or something like that?”

By this time the dog had started barking and though I was still curious about the guy, I answered him tersely: “Yeah, something like that.” I wanted this encounter to be over with. He got the message and said, “Well, I guess I’ll be going on my way.”

The man walked back towards his SUV and turned it and the trailer around. As his headlights disappeared down the twisting dirt road I got back into the van.

I told Bev about the odd conversation and she told me that before we had seen the man standing in our camp-site she had seen him peeking through the van’s rear window.

Now that was even creepier and stranger than my encounter! Most people are careful to follow an unwritten code of campground etiquette. Peeking into vehicle windows is certainly something I would never do!

The mystery surrounding this man increased the following morning. I was out for an early walk down the road. About a mile from our camp-site the man’s SUV and trailer were pulled over to the side of the road. The SUV’s engine was running and the man sat alone in the vehicle. I walked on by without acknowledging the man’s presence; as soon as I had passed the man pulled out into the road and passed me.

So odd! Why was he wandering around the back roads during hunting season? Why was he bothering to pull a thirty-foot trailer when he seemed to be by himself?

While I was out walking that morning Bev was sitting at the campsite playing her mandolin. A pickup truck pulled up into the site and two hunters mimicked for her the act of bowing a fiddle. They grinned foolishly. This seemed to Bev to be an obvious attempt to intimidate her. These hunters must have seen her playing the fiddle from a distance, perhaps using a spotting scope or binoculars.

I returned from my walk and Bev told me about this latest intrusive encounter. We decided to leave. Life’s too short to put up with such people!



Filed under Arizona, Stories

Poppy Seeds

Last spring while driving from Illinois to Arizona I began to notice a peculiar plant along the highways. Starting in central Oklahoma what looked like thistles began to appear, but rather than the typical purplish-red star-burst thistle flowers, these plants had large flowers with papery white petals. I eventually learned that these prickly plants were in the genus Argemone, and that they are commonly known as Prickly Poppies.

The species I’ve become familiar with here in Arizona is Argemone pleiacantha, the Arizona or Southwestern Prickly Poppy. It is common in overgrazed rangeland and in other disturbed sites such as roadsides.

One day last month I happened to be hiking through some BLM grassland in the shadow of the Dragoon Mountains. The leased range-land didn’t seem too healthy. The remaining grass was mostly a species which cattle disdain, possibly because of the insidious augur-like seeds which seemed to delight in burrowing into socks. I encountered several withered prickly poppies in that stretch of level grassland, as cattle don’t like that plant either. The Argemone seedpods were open and I had my first encounter with the seeds. I knelt down, split open a few pods and examined the contents.

Prickly Poppies are in the Poppy Family (the Papaveraceae), so I wasn’t surprised to see that the seeds looked like the familiar culinary poppy seeds from plants in the genus Papaver. Argemone seeds are about twice as large, though, and have an interesting surface texture. Here’s a shot of a pod with its seeds spilled out into my palm, which bears abrasions from a struggle with an enormous thicket of thorny “Wait-a-minute” acacia shrubs. Cattle avoid those wicked shrubs too!


A closer view of the seeds, which taste like commercial poppy seeds:


It’s easy to ignore common roadside weeds, but we may as well get used to them as people and roads proliferate unchecked. I like to see rare native plants as well as the next amateur botanist, but I also enjoy the neglected but ecologically adaptable plants as well!



Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos, Plants

Life Phases of the Coral Bean

On one of my first walks along the canyon slopes on the outskirts of Bisbee I repeatedly encountered odd clumps of bare twigs near rock outcroppings. They looked dead at first glance, but a fingernail scratch revealed green cambium. The untidy clumps also looked as if they had been sheared or broken off at a height of about three feet. The twigs or shoots didn’t have obvious buds. I filed the sightings away in my “Desert Oddities” mental drawer, and thought that a later season might make the plant’s identity apparent.

These puzzling encounters were in February. A few months later the dry desert spring began to gain momentum. In late May and early June the mystery solved itself when brilliant scarlet flowers emerged from the barren-looking twigs:


It was strange seeing these flowers unaccompanied by leaves, but the hummingbirds didn’t seem to mind that absence! Later leaves began to appear. The leaves looked much like those of cottonwood trees, and seemed unusually large and fleshy when compared to the small and leathery leaves of other desert plants and trees.


After our travels in Utah this fall another phase of the plant’s development awaited us upon our return to Bisbee. While I wasn’t looking the plants had set seed. The brilliant scarlet seeds were revealed when the absurdly bulbous pods burst:


The species Erythrina herbacea, commonly known as the Coral Bean, probably isn’t native here — historically it was found in the southeastern states and in northeastern Mexico, but it seems right at home around here, like the Osage Orange trees in the eastern states.

The seeds in the pods are separated by oddly hyperbolic lampshade-shaped papery structures. The seeds fall from the pods when lightly touched. I wonder what creatures can tolerate the poisonous alkaloids contained in the woody flesh of these seeds? The scarlet seed-coat seems like a warning. I certainly won’t try one!


One last shot of a side-lit seed peeking from a gracefully-arched pod:




Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos