Dream Of Convenience


Last night I made a very delicious apple cake which we ate with vanilla ice cream. It was remarkably tasty, but about an hour later, just before we went to bed, I began to feel a tightness in my abdomen, which I presumed was due to an unwelcome accumulation of intestinal gases. Perhaps the cake and ice cream had reacted with the pad tai we had eaten for supper.

Oh, well! Gas happens from time to time, just another reminder of our biological nature. I fell asleep easily while Bev stayed up for a while roaming the internet. Her Imac is next to the bed and she possesses an uncanny ability to read sideways.

Meanwhile I was immersed in complicated dreams. I experienced a false awakening, one of those deceptive dream-sequences which mimic true awakening. In the dream I was lying in bed, on my side and facing away from Bev’s side. Somehow I knew that Bev had taken her collie outside to pee or whatever. The gas in my bowels was insistent, and I thought “A perfect time for a fart or two! The noxious fumes will have dissipated by the time she returns!”

It is such a pleasant feeling to release unruly farts which have been confined for too long. Three quick poots and my digestive system was in equilibrium once again.

Then I really woke up and sensed that Bev was actually in bed, and awake. I was sheepish as I turned and saw her shrink back. I explained my dream delusion and we laughed at the absurdity of the situation. Bev said, “When I heard those farts I thought, ‘He must be asleep! Surely he wouldn’t fart so shamelessly if he was awake!!'”

I thought about that portion of my mind which acts as my dream director. I could imagine him mischievously contriving the situation, saying, “Larry really does need to fart — let’s see, I’ll plant the idea in his head that he is alone in the bed. This should be fun to watch!”

By the way, Bev came up with the title for this post.




Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Stories

On Tamales

The first time I ever ate a real tamale was a revelatory experience. Such a wonderful amalgam of corn, meat, and vegetables!

This culinary exposure took place quite a few years ago in a Mexican village along the Gulf Coast. There are many street-food vendors in just about any Mexican town; I was hungry and took notice of a ten-year-old boy standing on the sidewalk next to a galvanized trash can.  A tiny wood fire beneath the can (which sat on a few bricks) seemed to be making something boil within. I was intrigued.

The boy looked at me hopefully and said “Tamales, señor?”

“Let me take a look!” I replied.

The boy removed the trashcan’s lid and showed me ranks of vertically-oriented tamales arranged in a rack above a simmering pot of water.   A marvelously savory odor was conveyed by the steam rolling out of the can.

I had eaten bad canned tamales before, paper-wrapped pale orange concoctions which bear as as much resemblance to a real tamale as Spaghetti-Os do to home-made spaghetti. The real thing, I found, belonged to another category altogether. Unwrapping the steamed-soft corn-husk wrapper I found a neat oval of what looked like fine-textured cornbread. The filling was a simple mixture of cubed pork and green salsa.

That day I vowed to learn how to cook tamales.

Last night Bev and I made a batch of tamales using commercial masa harina, a corn flour made from nixtamalized white corn. Nixtamalization is the ancient process of treating corn kernels with a base solution, originally ash-water. What this does is make the corn more nutritious by freeing up previously unavailable amino acids and vitamins. This was a New World culinary invention which unfortunately didn’t accompany corn when the grain entered the continents of the Old World.

The corn husks used to wrap tamales are pleasant to work with. Lesser-quality husks are ripped into slender strips which are just right for tying off the ends of the tamales. First the corn husks are steamed in a pan in order to soften them:


Bev had previously prepared a filling mixture which had cooled by the time we were ready to make the tamales. It’s a mixture of chopped vegetables:


While Bev was chopping vegetables I had mixed up a batch of dough in the food processor; it’s just masa harina, stock, and a mixture of butter and shortening. The texture is like that of cookie dough:


A couple of spoonfuls of dough is spread out in the middle of corn husk and filling is applied:


The husk is rolled up and the ends are twisted shut and held by strips of torn husk tied securely. The husk ties are surprisingly strong and quite pleasing to work with:


Water has been brought to a slow boil in a large stock-pot which has a folding vegetable steamer in the bottom to keep the tamales out of the water:


It is very satisfying to see the assembled tamales gathered in the steamer awaiting their collective fate!

The tamales don’t take all that long to steam, perhaps forty-five minutes. They are done when the husk will peel cleanly from the cooked masa. Here’s a finished tamale with sour cream and green tomatillo salsa:


Here’s a closer look at the corn masa after it has been steamed. The surface takes an impression from the grooved surface of the enfolding corn husk which pleases me mightily. The texture doesn’t contribute to the taste but it does gratify the eye:


It’s true that tamales are quite a bit of work, one reason we don’t make them all that often. It’s almost as easy to make a large batch as it to make a small one, and tamales reheat beautifully in a microwave. The corn husk wrappers protect the tender and moist corn masa and therefore tamales keep well. I’ve read that they are good after being frozen and thawed, but ordinarily they get eaten up rather quickly!



Filed under Food

Crevice Oak

About one thousand feet from this canyon-side house is a limestone formation known as Dragon Rocks. A jagged dike of limestone was somehow extruded from a matrix of hot schist many years ago; a row of pinnacles remains as evidence of the geological tumult. The spine-like dike runs down the slope to the creek-bed, then back up the other side.

I like to walk in that neighborhood. Ferns cluster around the rocks and there are many deer and javelina trails to follow. Those well-adapted mammals have found the best cross-slope paths and they manage to keep the paths open due to their frequent wanderings.

Here’s a view of Dragon Rocks from the north. An agave stalk which has shed its seeds bisects the picture, and some of the canyon houses can be seen in the background.


Yesterday afternoon clouds were beginning to move in, harbingers of the rain which fell last night. I was scrambling from one limestone pinnacle to another when I saw a charming scene. A seedling oak, probably an evergreen Emory Oak, had sprouted a couple of years ago in a shallow crevice in the stone. A large Emory Oak grew nearby from the base of the formation and this tree most likely contributed the acorn.

There was only a couple inches of humus in the crevice, some of it contributed by coatimundis. Like raccoons, coatis like to poop on some sort of prominence.

The tiny oak’s leaves were a pleasing shade of mauve or violet and the under-surfaces were pale. Perhaps the reddish pigments protect the chlorophyll in the leaves from the intense summer sun. I imagine that by now the oak’s roots have blindly sought out minute cracks in the limestone at the bottom of the crevice.

This miniature scene cheered me; I always enjoy glimpsing lives which are lived in a vastly different time-scale than my own.



1 Comment

Filed under Arizona, Natural History, Photos

Teff Pancakes

Last night I was pondering in a culinary mode. What to cook? Something new would be nice, I thought. Prospecting in the kitchen cupboards I came across a sack of teff flour, something I’ve never tasted. I knew that teff originated in the highlands of Ethiopia, but there were no Ethiopians handy to answer that crucial question: what do you do with this obscure grain?

Whenever Ethiopians are thin on the ground I gravitate towards Google, that fount of information which increasingly is replacing my memory. There I found a recipe from the New York Times which looked interesting:

Teff And Oatmeal Pancakes

We had no blueberries, but I figured frozen cranberries would be a good substitute. Twenty minutes later I had two meals’ worth of nice-looking pancakes cooked up, and another twenty minutes saw half of them consumed. I’m not sure that I could detect whatever difference using teff flour might have made in the taste of the pancakes, but I do believe it’s generally worthwhile to vary ingredients. We might as well make good use of the global food distribution network before it crumbles and we are reduced to winnowing bluegrass seeds in the toxic breeze!

Here’s a shot of a plate of leftover pancakes. I thought that they were quite photogenic!




Filed under Food

The Lone Madrone

It’s easy to think that observing the world around you is a simple natural function, a survival trait inherited from Pleistocene ancestors. Over the years I’ve noticed that there seem to be several modes of observation distinguished by varying degrees of granularity and attention.

Here’s an analogy from the digital imaging world. As the resolution of a digital photo is decreased, blockiness or pixelization becomes evident. The amount of detail, which is equivalent to the amount of information, decreases along with the resolution.

Our attention to detail while observing the world around us varies widely depending upon previous experience and one’s general state of mind. When your mind is abstracted and distracted you don’t perceive much, usually just a blocky low-resolution version of the world. I call this minimal form of perception the Cartoon World. Every scene, object or organism in that blocky world exists as a stripped-down simulacrum of the “real” world, leached of all but the details essential for navigation and survival. This version of the world is crude but functional, and seems to be the pattern used by developers of real estate in this country. Expanses of anonymous green vegetation with smooth vehicular paths winding through them. But who wants to live in an environment which resembles a video game from the ’90s?

Sometimes “running on autopilot” is welcome, such as when driving along a lightly-traveled and familiar road. One part of your mind can dream, reminisce, and speculate while another part monitors the road, looking out for quickly-approaching objects and other anomalies. While taking a walk the penalties for immoderate abstraction are less severe and one’s fancy can be given free reign. Nevertheless, while I’m walking there is always a part of my mind looking out for unusual visual patterns which might signify a plant or other organism which is new to me. Of course, you can’t notice anomalies unless you have a basic knowledge of the creatures which share the landscape with you!

Readers might well welcome a return to experiential accounts rather than idle theorizing. Here’s an example:

The other day, one of those balmy, sunny winter days common in these subtropical latitudes, I was traversing a canyon slope not far from our house on the north edge of Bisbee. I enjoy seeing how the vegetation changes as I make my way up the slope. At about seven thousand feet the manzanita begin to taper off and the piñon pines, alligator junipers, and ocotillos begin to appear among the ubiquitous evergreen oaks. Radial clumps of thorn-tipped agave, sotol, and yucca are scattered between the clumps of short and gnarled trees, but much of the surface is barren, crumbling expanses of decomposed granite and schist which only support plant life during the monsoon season..

I was on a deer and javelina trail when I encountered what seemed to be yet another multi-trunked oak, with widely-extended branches hugging a precious pool of shade. Something didn’t look right, though. The leaves were too long and their color unfamiliar, and the bark of the smaller branches showed curling red patches which reminded me of manzanita bark. Gradually it dawned on me that I was looking at an Arizona Madrone, a species I have mostly seen along creeks and rivers accompanied by sycamores. Later I learned that madrones grow on dry oak-juniper scrub-desert slopes as well as along streams. The stream-side trees are tall and straight, like most conifers, while the desert members of the species grow much like contorted scrub oaks.

Here is a shoot with buds and leaves. The leaf-stalks and branchlets always have some shade of reddish-brown shading into peach tones, a pleasing contrast to the greens of the leaf surfaces.


The bark of the trunks is gray and blocky, resembling the bark of certain oaks, but as the branches ramify and become smaller patches of red and orange appear:


The bark peels and curls just as the bark of the closely-related manzanita does. It’s as if the outer bark conceals vital reddish flesh within:


This arboreal encounter made my day, and as I walked back my mind was filled with speculations. Why is there only one madrone growing on that entire expanse of canyon slope? Were there more at one time? Perhaps the species was favored by firewood-cutters back in the day?

I was almost home when I saw a familiar corner post, a section of telephone pole which someone had laboriously embedded in the rocky slope back when sure-footed cattle risked their lives for what little grass grows here. I stopped and examined the weathered top surface of the pine pole, which was pleasingly illuminated by the afternoon sun. The weathering process, mostly just strong sunlight, had abraded away the softer spring-wood portion of the annual rings, leaving ranks of sharp blades of summer-wood. A pleasant miniature landscape to explore for a while!




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

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