A Sycamore and a Storm

Saturday morning I had planned to make a short visit to the Farmer’s Market in Warren, which is a part of Bisbee which lies on the far side of that yawning moonscape, the Lavender Pit. I thought I would buy some chile peppers and tomatoes and possibly talk with people, but I didn’t plan to stay long. On a whim I threw my fiddle in the truck, as you never know — I could meet another musician sharing that yen to jam a bit.

As I passed the display of healthy native plants and trees offered by Spadefoot Nursery, a local concern, I was intrigued by a group of lush-looking Arizona Sycamore trees.

“How old are those trees?”, I asked the proprietor.

“They are first year seedlings, and they’ve been doing remarkably well.”

Fifteen bucks seemed to be a bargain, so I bought a four-foot-tall baby sycamore.

I ended up staying at the market for over three hours. The singer who was scheduled to perform hadn’t showed up, so I played the fiddle with two friends who happened to be there, a banjo player and a mandolinist/guitarist. We had a good time, and I made enough money in tips to pay for the tree and a bag of chili peppers and okra too! A nice serendipitous morning.

I knew rain was forecast for today, but I figured it would come in the afternoon. It seemed like a good day to plant a tree, as the sky was cloudy and the temperature cool. I drove out into the Sulphur Springs Valley, hoping the lane to our cabin would be passable. I was a bit dubious when I saw water pooled and mud deposited on North Frontier Road — how much rain had fallen out there?

I drove through several washes on the mile-long road back to the cabin. The contours of the land had changed as sheets of run-off had re-sculpted the surface of the road. Then I had to stop, as the water had carved out a hole in the road big enough to seize a tire. I walked back to the cabin, got a shovel and a bucket, and filled that hole with sand and gravel.

When I got to the cabin the rain gauge showed two and a quarter inches, quite a substantial rain! Digging the hole for the tree was quick and easy in the moist soil. I didn’t even have to use the mattock! Here’s a shot of the sycamore after I’d fenced around the tree, using half-inch re-bar as posts. Javelinas and deer shouldn’t be able to bother that tree!


A shot of the healthy native tree from above:


The valley can be windy, too hot or too cold, and bleak at times. In some ways, especially compared to Bisbee’s moderation in all things climatic, the valley can be a harsh environment, but this is often offset by utterly spectacular skies. From our place you can see for thirty miles in some directions, eighty in others. Often several rain showers are visible at once. Cumulus clouds ascend in mighty pillars or anvil-shaped formations, and sometimes the cirrus clouds are delicately arranged in exquisite patterns.This blue rift in the clouds above the Mule Mountains caught my eye:


Looking south along our lane:


As I was driving back to Bisbee along Double Adobe Road I just had to pull over and shoot some photos. The southern arm of the Mules looked so verdant where the sun was peeking through the clouds:


Looking towards Bisbee it seemed likely that rain was falling. The town is right behind the mountain which is almost obscured by clouds and rain in this shot:


As I drove into town torrential rain was falling. The streets were inches deep in flowing water and cars left rooster-tail spray in their wakes. I stopped to get my mail at the post office and managed to become completely drenched during the short run in and then back to my truck. But I did get our tree planted, and I didn’t get my truck stuck!

Addendum: I was lucky to get out there before the storm this afternoon! here’s a photo from the Cochise County Road Department of Frontier Road this afternoon:




The Latin names of organisms fascinate me. There are few rules for naming, and naturalists and biologists often turn to the Greek and Roman myths for inspiration. Typhon was the “deadliest monster” in Greek mythology, and he was the father of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who was employed by Hades to guard the entrance of the underworld. Typhon was also the father of the Sphinx, who plagued the city of Thebes until Oedipus happened along and answered her riddle. Quite a distinguished family in the land of myths!

Mention of the Sphinx leads me by an admittedly circuitous route to the real subject of this post.

Recently I was visiting a friend, a single mother who is raising a six-year-old boy. This boy maintains and adds to a collection of curiosities: geological, cultural, and biological objects which he and his mother have spotted and brought home. The boy was showing me his latest acquisitions.

“Mom and I found this moth in the school parking lot! Isn’t it cool!”

The moth was dead and a bit deteriorated. The wing patterns fascinated me. I could tell that it was a sphinx moth, but I had never encountered that particular species before.

The next time I visited I had my camera with me. I shot this photo and, once I was home again, I looked up the species in a moth book.


The moth seems to be rare, but biological rarities turn up often in Southeast Arizona. I could find no common name for the creature, but I’m pretty certain that the Latin name is Eumorpha typhon. “Eumorpha” could be translated as “Good shape”, and Typhon, as related above, was the father of the Sphinx.

To me personal discoveries like this one are the essence of coolness. Greek mythology, whimsical biologists mining the myths for names, and a beautiful creature whose larvae live on wild grapes.

I’ll keep an eye on that boy, as he seems to have good luck finding interesting things!


Artistic Motifs And The Natural World

The word “seed” interests me. In this increasingly industrialized world the word might be used metaphorically more often than literally. Plants have seeds, but so do ideas and essays.

The seed of this photo-essay was an e-mail exchange I had recently with Bev, who is at her house in Nova Scotia for the summer. Both of us belong to a Facebook group which features photos of moths and requests for moth IDs. Most of the photos posted to the group are of North American moth species, many of them familiar to us. Lately one of the members of the group has been posting spectacular photos of Malaysian moths, and another member has been posting photos of Chinese species.

Bev and I agreed that these moth images were strange-looking, unlike our local species in shape and color. These moths had evolved in another hemisphere, and evolution always has an element of randomness which could explain the differences we observed.

Pondering this, I began to wonder about the early years of any culture. This brought to mind the clich├ęd term “Golden Age”. We inherited this term from our Mediterranean cultural forbearers, the Greeks and Romans. The Chinese have an analogous term. The general idea is that everything was better in the “old days”, that people lived closer to nature and lacked the societal ills which plague the present. An attenuated personal version of this concept is quite noticeable in every old person’s view that, in general, things were better when they were younger. Dammit, they just were!

In general, every human society wishes to expand its population. The traditional view towards competing neighbor societies has always been, except for brief interludes, “assimilate ‘em or obliterate ‘em!”. This attitude goes hand in hand with the urge to subjugate and make maximum use of the natural environment. Every civilization has a childhood period, though, when the population was low, neighbors were distant, and the natural world intermingled with the human world.

During these “Golden Ages” many of the artistic design motifs which help give a culture its individual character arose. Typically leaves and flowers of the local vegetation were abstracted and conventionalized. One example from Roman culture is the use of the acanthus leaf. Acanthus mollis is a spiny-leaved plant of the Mediterranean region. This design motif was eagerly embraced by the Victorians in England during the 19th Century; the designers of that era used it in everything from textiles to cast iron. The acanthus leaf became so stylized that the resemblance to the original plant was almost lost. Here are two photos of the acanthus plant, followed by a Victorian acanthus-inspired design:




I had been familiar with the acanthus-leaf motif from an early age, and I still recall how surprised I was to learn that Acanthus is a real plant genus! People in Britain grow the plant as an ornamental in gardens.

A common decorative motif in England since the middle Ages is the leaf of Quercus robur, the English Oak:


Before the British Navy began consuming oaks voraciously in order to make sailing ships there were many oak forests in England; they were the backdrops of rural and village life. The leafs became stylized by wood- and stone-carvers, as in these examples from Winchester Cathedral:



What originally inspired this post were some thoughts about the shapes of moths in different parts of the world. Here is a photo of a Geometrid moth. It was taken by John Horstman in Yunnan Province, China


Now look at a leaf from Ginkgo biloba, a Chinese tree with a leaf shape and structure unlike those of any Occidental tree:


Of course you are familiar with the use of fans as a decorative motif in Oriental art. Art imitating nature? It seems to be a universal human trait.


Avant le deluge

Tuesday afternoon I felt like taking a walk. I thought that a storm might be coming, and the atmospheric conditions which bring on such an intuition tend to make me restless. I didn’t have to worry about making a palatable meal because I had food already cooked. Since Bisbee is located in a steep-sided canyon I couldn’t see much of the horizon, but I noticed that the sky was looking quite dark towards the south.

I thought that gaining a vantage point way up on the canyon slope might provide me with some good photos of the approaching storm. I drove up Tombstone Canyon (Bisbee’s main drag) a ways and headed up the opposite side of the canyon on Moon Canyon Road. That road is perched halfway up the canyon side. I could park near a trail-head, and from there I could walk up to a high point from which, with any luck, I’d have a good view of an approaching storm. What could possibly go wrong?

Such a nice view of Bisbee with ominous lightning-dissected dark clouds in the background! The storm didn’t seem to be moving in too fast. I shot some photos along the trail; here’s one of an insect-eye view along the stem of a Strap-leaved Morning Glory, with the angled leaves forming twin palisades:


This species is just beginning its blooming period; here’s the lone open blossom I saw:


The sky was becoming dramatic and I began to think about turning back:


I noticed a nice schist outcropping near the top which looked to be a good place to sit and take some more photos. I went off the trail and was nearly to the outcrop when the breeze picked up and rain began to fall. Change of plans!

The rain became heavier and visibility was poor. I realized that I was unlikely to find the trail again. I knew that if I kept descending I’d surely get back to Moon Canyon Road, where my truck awaited me. By this time I was soaked and my main priorities were keeping my camera dry and not stumbling and falling.

The prime thing to remember when attempting to go down a steep canyon slope, its surface strewn with loose scree, is that you just can’t hurry. I really wished that I had thought to bring a walking stick, as a third leg can be a big help on those steep slopes.

I glanced back towards the approaching storm just once during my descent. It was a chilling sight; a wall of heavy rain was inexorably approaching down the canyon. I got to my truck, and as I fumbled with my truck’s key the real rain hit. Such tumult! My glasses were fogged up as I started the engine and I fired up the defroster so I could see out the window. Brilliant lightning flashed simultaneously with the thunder, and I realized that those lightning bolts were striking up on the slopes where I had been just moments before.

I couldn’t see well enough to safely get my truck turned around. Moon Canyon Road is narrow, and the downhill side is a steep drop-off into a sub-canyon. After a few minutes the rain abated a bit, I got turned around, and on my way down to Tombstone Canyon Road I drove through five newly-formed streams. The rain washes down those canyon slopes so quickly!

A couple more photos, taken just before the rain began to fall:



An exciting evening indeed, but I was very content to witness the remainder of the storm from my apartment haven on Brophy Street.


Up And Over

Lately I’ve become fond of a little park which just happens to be on the way to the Safeway store on the south edge of Bisbee. The park has a parking lot but hardly anyone ever goes there. It’s just a few acres in extent, but the park is sort of a microcosm of limestone-based Chihuahuan desert scrub, dominated by ocotillo and agave.

One of my favorite plants around here is a monsoon-blooming morning glory species, a sprawling plant with strap-like leaves and spectacular blossoms. The plant’s most common haunts are way up on the high canyon slopes, but this park harbors quite a few clumps and they are easy to find. Sometimes I’m not in the mood for a strenuous climb of several hundred feet!

Ipomoea longifolia has a tuberous root, giving the species a buffer against dry periods. This morning glory species sends out horizontal vines which snake their way across the rocky soil. These vines will climb, but not very far up. They don’t need to, as there is plenty of bare ground to inch their way across.

Yesterday I realized that I was almost out of toilet paper, something I do like having on hand. I’m spoiled by civilization’s luxuries, I readily admit! After visiting a friend in town for a while, I headed for the Safeway store. My curiosity got the better of me as I began to wonder what might be blooming in that little park. Ten minutes is sufficient to ramble around for a while with my camera, as the park is small.

This morning glory scene caught my eye. A vine had encountered a big chunk of limestone and rather than go around it, the vine went up the rock and over to the other side:


These morning glories are budded out (as you can see in the photo) and will probably be in full bloom within a week. You can be sure that I’ll stop and check on them while on a grocery run!


Disorder At The Border

A journal entry typed way, way up in the sky:

As I type this I’m in an Airbus jet somewhere over the Midwest, a mode
of transportation distinguished only by its speed. The constant noise
annoys me, and I do wish that one could see more than small oval
glimpses of the landscapes and cloudscapes we pass.

Three flights took me to Halifax from Tucson starting Monday night:
the first, a short one, to Phoenix, the second to Philadelphia, and
the third over the Atlantic to Nova Scotia.

Due to an unfortunate encounter with Canadian officialdom I’m now
reversing those flights. The Canadians refused to allow me to enter
Canada for more than one day, and they kept my passport in order to
ensure my compliance. I think they expected me to linger around the
airport and perhaps rent a motel room, but Bev and I drove north to
her place at Round Hill instead. We didn’t get much sleep, as at
about one-thirty in the morning we had to drive back to Halifax for my
expulsion at five in the morning.

The several hours of driving were worthwhile for both Bev and I,
though. I got to see what the Round Hill house and grounds look like
after all of Bev’s work this year and we were able to spend spome
bittersweet hours together away from the soulless ambience of the
Halifax airport.

When I get back to Tucson I’ll take a motel room for the night and
morning. This will enable me to e-mail my Bisbee friends, in
particular Liz, from whom I hope to re-rent the apartment I’ve been
living in for the past month. Somehow I have to shepherd my baggage
and myself back down to Bisbee. What a farce, escorting bundles of
clothes and cased musical instruments across a continent and back in
the course of two days!

I knew things were going wrong when the Halifax border official’s ears perked up when I mentioned that I was intending to play music with friends in Nova Scotia. The official was a woman, and I had heard the the female officials are more stringent than the males, but of course I wasn’t offered a choice of sexes! The official said:

“Hmm… a musician, eh? [she flipped through my passport] So you were here for a lengthy stay last summer, it seems. I think you will have go to the Immigration desk; it’s just down the hall.”

My heart sank as I trundled my baggage down the hall. Other Americans were gaily walking right by the Immigration desk, but I had been singled out. I waited for the one Immigration official to finish processing a mixed-race couple with backpacks. The official was a man, and my native optimism kindled a spark of hope. The backpacking couple moved on, and the official beckoned to me. I handed him my papers and passport and he scrutinized them.

“Hmmm… a musician. What do you play?”

“Irish dance music on the fiddle.”

“Oh, fiddlers are always trying to get in! Playing in pubs, making money… really, you are wanting to work in Canada, right?”

“I don’t play for money, even in pubs. This isn’t pro-level playing, I’m not playing gigs, it’s just music with friends!”

“They all say that. Playing for tips, no taxes involved… quite a sweet deal for you!”

“I’ve never made a penny playing music in Canada!”

“Maybe, maybe not. What you need is a work visa.”

“But this isn’t work! It’s playing with friends in kitchen jams, things like that.”

“I’ll do you a favor; I’ll start processing a work visa for you, and we can get this formality behind us.”

“But I don’t want a work visa!”

The official, who wore a holstered pistol, peered at his computer screen. He said, with evident satisfaction,

“Well, what have we here? Why don’t you tell me about your criminal record?”

It was rather odd that he asked me that, as obviously he was looking at every trace my life had left on the legal system, right here in black and white on the screen.

“Well, I had a misdemeanor disturbing the peace conviction in Hannibal, Missouri a few years ago. My dog had gotten loose more than once.”

“Well, that one doesn’t show up here — must have been expunged at some point. I don’t care about trivial city-level offenses, though. What interests me is this Iowa thing.”

Oh, the curse of my life, which follows me around like an especially insistent stray dog!

“Okay, I did have a DUI conviction in 2011, but I managed to satisfy every legal obligation.”

“Yeah, I see… big fines, some jail time, all that stuff. Y’know, here in Canada we take a dim view of drunken driving. It’s a felony here, and so in our eyes you are a felon and we don’t want you entering our borders. We’re big drinkers up here and we have to be rather picky about drunk drivers.”

He went on:

“Now, Larry, I can tell that you are basically an okay guy, and you’ve been leveling with me pretty well. If I didn’t like you I could have you held in a cell overnight before we put you on a plane back to the USA. We have arrangement with the airlines. It they fly an undesirable into Canada they’ll pay for the fares to get them back to where they came from. Now, I’m going to give you a break. I know that your “friend” Bev is waiting for you. She’s already talked to some of our people. I’m going to hold your passport, and you can stay in Canada, preferably right here in the airport, but at five tomorrow morning you have to be here. I’ll be off duty, but two other immigration officers will escort you to the airline desk and see that you get your passport back, and that you are put on a plane back to your own country. Now if for some reason you choose not to show up, you will be a fugitive… and we have special operatives who will track you down and bring you back. They’re tough guys and you don’t want to mess with ‘em.”

This was getting weird. Had I wandered into a spy novel? Such melodrama, and I could tell that the officer was enjoying this bullshit presentation.

Well, Bev and I decided to drive back up to her Round Hill place. We could spend a few hours together before driving back to Halifax early the next morning. She wanted to show me the progress on her house and grounds, and we both badly need some time together before I had to retrace my aerial steps, all the way back to Bisbee.

At five AM two uniformed and armed Canadian immigration officers showed up at the airport. I had to sign a paper stating that my passport had been given back to me, and the airline gave me free boarding passes all the way back to Tucson. I bade Bev goodbye and waited for the next flight to Philadelphia. Another day of flying, ameliorated only by talking with other passengers. This time I had a good story for them!


A Slimy And Incontinent Nocturnal Visitor

Tonight I had turned in early, but at about ten o’clock I was awakened by the welcome sound of gentle rain pitter-pattering on the tin porch roof. I got up and stepped out onto the porch to listen for a while. Such a sweet sound, especially at night!

As I stood there I noticed a rather large round pebble at the edge of the porch’s concrete floor. Odd, I thought, as the gravel which paves the courtyard is angular, not rounded like river gravel. Then I saw that the pebble was slowly moving.

I squatted down and encountered the first snail I’ve seen in the ten months I’ve been living in the Bisbee area. It was a rather large snail — its shell was over an inch long. The light was too low for photography, so I picked up the creature and took it inside. The snail immediately retracted its head and horns, probably thinking that it was about to be eaten. Many birds know how to winkle a snail from its shell.

I set the snail down on the other end of the piano bench which I sit on while typing these posts. The snail remained all retracted and immobile:


I went to the kitchen for some water and dribbled some around the snail. After a while it cautiously extended an eye-stalk:


I wondered what the small lumps towards the right in the above photo might be — was this snail pooping?


The snail seemed to revive after the water was puddled around it. It began to crawl, leaving a trail of slime and feces:


I enjoy watching a snail maneuvering its eye-stalks. What would it be like to have such mobile eyes? What does the world look like to a snail?

These questions being unanswerable, I picked up the creature and set it down outside where I found it.

Liz is a friend from whom I’ve been renting this place for the past month. I assure you, Liz, if you should happen to read this, I cleaned up that piano bench. You won’t find small piles of snail poop after I leave!


A Poppy By Any Other Name…

Across a broad swathe of the Southwest, all the way from Texas to California, Kallstroemia grandiflora brightens up the landscape after summer rains. Many folks know this plant as Arizona Poppy, but it’s not in the Poppy Family (known on formal occasions as the Papaveraceae). A more appropriate common name is Arizona Caltrop. The plant is related to Creosote Bush and both are in the Caltrop Family. Later on, just to complicate matters, another plant which is in the Poppy Family shows up.

The California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana) blooms in the late winter and early spring. The plant’s flower strongly resembles the Arizona Poppy in size, color, and shape. The leaves, though are gray-green and dissected, quite unlike the leaves of the Arizona Poppy.

So why should this matter to the majority of people who aren’t botanically inclined? Hmm… I suppose that such people might be glad for the botanical diversity, which gives them cheery yellow-orange flowers at two different times of year. That said, I think that in general it’s good to know something about your neighbors!

At a web-site called Desert USA David B. Williams wrote this about the habitat and habits of Kallstroemia grandiflora:

The Arizona poppy is common to profuse in flat, sandy grasslands from sea level to 6000 feet. A summer bloomer, Arizona poppies begin to appear with the rains and in particularly wet years, their display rivals spring wildflowers. Even if Kallstroemia dominates an area one year, it may be rare or nonexistent the next. Seeds remain viable for at least three years and germinate at irregular intervals. Although the flowers lack any fragrance, they are visited by at least 46 species, including bees, wasps, flies and butterflies. Insects find the flowers and get directions to pollen and nectar from the ultraviolet reflecting patterns of the flowers. Areas that are not reflective appear dark and indicate either the location of the nectar or act as guides that point to the sugar source. The great variety of visitors utilize the flowers in four distinct ways. Unlike many insect visitors to plants, three groups do not play a role in pollination. One group avoids the anthers and stigma by being too small. A second group, including honeybees and larger wasps, extract nectar from under the flower. A third clan only stops by for nectar. A fourth group gathers pollen and nectar from within the flower and contributes to both cross- and self-pollination. Researchers hypothesized that the non-pollinating visitors “contributed to the economy of the plant by reducing the quantity of available nectar so that the pollinators have to visit more flowers to get their full nectar supply.

Out in the Sulphur Springs Valley Caltrop flowers are springing up all over. The monsoon rains give them their big chance of the year to have progeny.


Here’s what a pollinating insect sees as it flies into the maw of the flower — a realm of yellow-orange sex. Notice how this flower has already been well-pollinated. The pistil seems well-satisfied. Pollen grains are carelessly strewn about, the aftermath of a cross-species party.



The Ghost of Samuel Dale

This morning a fine drizzle was falling, still such a novelty after the dry months. I was meditatively ambling through patches of ocotillo and agave in a small park tucked into a wash here in Bisbee. The ground was strewn with chunks of limestone, possibly a reason the little tract of land had never been developed.

There are so many leguminous trees and shrubs in the Chihuahuan desert-scrub landscape that it can be easy to overlook the less common species. I see compound leaves with many opposite leaflets and tend to think “Oh, more mesquite and white-thorn acacia…” On this walk, though, a small shrub caught my eye; I could tell it was something different. I squatted down and shot some photos. Rather than having yellow or pink fuzzy balls or cylinders for flowers, this species had pea-like flowers with prominent sprays of fine hairs. Subtle, easily-overlooked, but quite beautiful in a modest way. The shrubs were just eighteen inches tall, with woody stems:



After I got home I determined that my shrub is called Featherplume (Dalea formosa) Back when I roamed the tiny prairie remnants of the Midwest I was fond of two non-woody species of Dalea, Purple Prairie Clover and White Prairie Clover, legumes which once nourished vast herds of buffalo in the tall-grass prairie, that region which now nourishes Monsanto. The Featherplume is a desert relative of these plants.

The genus Dalea was named for Samuel Dale, an early English botanist and geologist who died in 1739. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, must have either known the man or known of his work, as it was Linnaeus who named the genus after Dale. Here’s a portrait of Samuel Dale, flowing locks and all:


A walk which admits me to the company of an organism new to me is always welcome!


Vegetative Strife

Or: “Morning Glories — Fiercer Than They Look”

In the courtyard outside my back door a silent battle for light has been raging. It can be quite distracting at times!

It all started a couple of days after the first substantial monsoon rain of the season. Hundreds of morning glory seedlings sprang up, angling U-shaped seed-leaves to the light. This was a couple of weeks ago. It was calm out in the courtyard until these seedlings began to send up shoots and jostle for a position which would provide a steady supply of sunlight. Gotta have energy to flower and ripen seeds, after all!

Here’s one of the first shoots trying to reach an overhanging pyracantha branch.


Once the true leaves had appeared it became apparent to me that these were Ivy-leaved Morning Glories (Ipomoea hederacea), a weedy species which may or may not be native to Southeast Arizona. The flowers will be small, about half the size of the blooms of a cultivated variety like Heavenly Blue, but with the same limpid sky-blue coloration.

This next shot was taken about ten days later. You can see some of the deeply-lobed true leaves beginning to form. Since morning glory shoots can’t see as they grope for a purchase upon whatever might enable them to climb, sometimes two or more shoots will encounter each other. In this photo several shoots are intertwined and the result might be that the collective weight will be their undoing. It’s like a slow-motion wrestling match.


This scenario reminds me of the old cautionary tale about crabs struggling to get out of a bucket. Once one crab manages to get part of the way up the steep sides of the bucket, other crabs will cling to it and they all fall back to the bottom.

Perhaps one in fifty of the hundreds of morning glory seedlings in the courtyard will survive to flower and bear seeds. At least they are silent during all of this struggle and strife!