The Eyes Of Helios

Yesterday at dawn I was standing outside watching and photographing a particularly nice monsoon-season sunrise. As the sun was barely peeking over the Swisshelm Mountains it began to look like two smaller suns, side by side, and this created what I hope was the illusion of a pair of incredibly bright eyes:

Eyes In The Sky

Eyes In The Sky

I noticed a shimmery sound to my left and the form of Eos, Goddess Of The Dawn, materialized next to me.

“Oh, hi, Eos! You startled me!”

“Hey, Larry. I noticed you down here and thought I’d better give you a heads-up. Those really are eyes on the eastern horizon. They belong to Helios, and the big H can be a bit cranky first thing in the morning. If I were you I’d get inside, and take that orange dog with you. Otherwise you might find the gaze of Helios mortally intense!”

“What’s a Greek god doing in the Arizona desert?”

“Oh, he gets around. Hey, I gotta hustle over to the San Pedro Valley. I have some new Anasazi sprites helping set up the sunrise over there and I need to see how they’re doin’. See ya!”

Eos shimmered off into the sky, and I called Dingo and hustled her inside.


An Ocotillo, a Spider, and Doomed Ants

Yesterday afternoon I was out walking with my dog. The sky was overcast and the air was blessedly cool and humid. I squatted down to observe the new growth of an Ocotillo which I had planted some months ago. An odd sight caught my eye, little winged insects were seemingly suspended in a vertical plane to the left of the thorny Ocotillo trunk. Looking closely I could see that the insects were winged ants, probably part of a monsoon-induced nuptial swarm. They were caught in a barely-visible spider’s web, one side of which was anchored to the Ocotillo and the other end — I suppose anchored to the rocky soil?

Doomed Suspended Ants

Doomed Suspended Ants

Ocotillo and Spiderweb

Ocotillo and Spiderweb

This scene told a story to me, a tale of a lone spider seeking an anchor point for its web and ants hoping to mate but having their flight rudely interrupted. I saw the tiny spider lurking among the Ocotillo’s thorns, probably waiting for me to leave so that it could harvest its net’s yield.

Addendum: the following morning I revisited the Ocotillo and found the web almost emptied of prey. The spider was perched near the top of the stalk:

Dinner Time!

Dinner Time!


First Monsoon Storm!

This time of year residents of Southeast Arizona are weary of hot, dry days and clear blue skies. The rains almost always come by midsummer, but when?

Monday evening (June 22nd) I was watching a storm building over the San José Mountains in Sonora, just seven or eight miles south of our cabin. One leg of a rainbow contrasted nicely with the blur of falling rain, and I fetched my camera. This first shot was taken at about 7:00 PM, while the sun was still shining here. Along with the rainbow fragment there were interesting cloud structures forming:


First Monsoon Storm #1

The storm seemed to be moving towards me rapidly. As the sun began to set lightning and thunder gave a portentous feel to the scene, but the rainbow was still visible. An odd hole in the clouds was forming. A few drops of rain began to fall and I managed to capture part of one lightning-strike. Notice the little curl of inter-cloud lightning in the upper-right corner:


First Monsoon Storm #2

The roundish hole or opening in the clouds looked like a portal to another world. The wind was picking up and I backed into my doorway.


First Monsoon Storm #3

A violent storm! The wind was gusting at over 50 mph and the hole in the clouds moved in closer. I took one last shot and raced to get my windows closed:


First Monsoon Storm #4

After all of the tumult of the storm I only received perhaps an eighth of an inch of rain, but with any luck this first storm of the season is a harbinger of more!


The Lizard King

A re-post from Facebook, where the post and accompanying photos drew quite a bit of attention:

This afternoon as the sun was beginning to cast long shadows I encountered a Long-nosed Leopard Lizard sunning itself in a sandy wash. Luckily for me, one of this lizard’s defenses is freezing. I shot one of these photos standing right in front of the creature, then I assumed Photographer’s Yoga Position Number Three (the Snake Position), which involves stretching out prone while peering through the viewfinder.

This is the biggest lizard species I have encountered around here; its body was about eight inches long and the tail about a foot. After a while the lizard, wearied of my attentions, abruptly turned around and sped away, running on its hind legs with forelimbs off the ground. My dog Dingo chased it briefly, but soon gave up.




Reina de la Noche in Cochise County

The landscape here in Southeast Arizona can appear a bit bleak late in the winter. As spring approached I naturally was eager to see which plants would green up first. There had been some nice rains during the winter which boded well for our local plant populations.

One fine morning towards the end of March I was just a hundred feet or so from our cabin examining a newly leafed out shrub growing in a clump of mesquite. I later found out from a friend that it was a Four-winged Saltbush. I noticed an oddly-colored vertical shoot back in the shadows of the clump; it was about an inch in diameter, prominently ribbed with short spines along the ribs, and dully colored a sort of purplish green-brown. Some sort of cactus, perhaps?

I walked back to the cabin and described the plant to Bev. I was reaching for a little illustrated guidebook to Arizona cacti, but Bev was quicker and got to the book before I did. She riffled through the book and before long exclaimed “Looks like it might be a Night-blooming Cereus cactus!”

I must say that I was a bit annoyed with her, as after all I was the one who had found the plant! A transitory feeling…

That day both Bev and I made forays out into the desert scrub looking for other examples of the species. Each of us found a couple. They aren’t easy to see, as from a distance greater than three feet they look just like a dead mesquite branch.

In early April I began to see signs of new growth on the half-dozen or so Peniocereus greggii plants we had located.

A note on the various names of the species: the Latin binomial botanical name is Peniocereus greggii and one of the English common names is Night-blooming Cereus. As is often the case, the Spanish name has more poetry than the English or Latin names: La Reina de la Noche, or Queen of the Night.

Here’s a shot of some new growth; whether a shoot or a flower bud it was hard to determine:


After a week or so the shoots had elongated:


Towards the middle of April the flower-buds could be distinguished from the vegetative shoots:



At that time I was guessing that the first blooms would open sometime in May.

On the 27th of April I was scouting around for one of these cacti which I remembered finding a month or so previously. I found it and was pleased to see some buds on the plant beginning to burst, the first one in the area to my knowledge. This may have been because the scrubby mesquites which had sheltered and shaded the plant in its youth had mostly died, doubtless victims of the multi-year drought in the area. The cactus was getting more sun and this caused the blooming time to be in advance of the nearby sheltered specimens, I surmised. A shot of this cactus:


Over the next couple of days the first two flowers opened up, releasing a heavy spicy-floral odor:


This shot was taken at dusk, just after sunset:


And here’s how it looked as the sun peeked over the Swisshelm Mountains the next morning:


Several books I had consulted made the claim that in a given locality all of the Night-blooming Cereus cacti would bloom on the same night. I think this is one of erroneous statements which are copied from one book to another. At least in this locality it seems that the blossoms will open over a period of two weeks or so.

Oddly enough, in my daily rambles through the washes and gravelly flats around here I’ve never encountered this species of cactus outside of a radius of 1/4 mile from our cabin. Perhaps they grow in local clusters or communities and we just happened to have bought a piece of land within one of these communities!


Winter In The Valley

It’s been a while since I posted here. I’ve been busy, what with moving out to our cabin and getting ready for winter here. We’re off the grid and we rely on wood for heat. Our electricity comes from a couple of 100-watt solar panels and we haul drinking water from town in five-gallon carboys. All of this takes time and attention, thus I’ve had less time to collect my thoughts and write.

It has come to my attention that a few of the readers of this blog have an antipathy towards Facebook. Facebook has its problems and annoyances, but these days I just have to use it. The vast majority of my friends and relatives use Facebook and thus it’s a convenient way to share photos, audio, and brief textual expressions.

It’s Christmas day as I type this post. It’s sunny and windy outside and I’ve retreated to the cabin to write for a while. A pecan and mesquite fire is burning in the stove. I’ve collected several of my Facebook posts and present them here, both for Facebook-phobic readers and as a more dependable way to archive them. I’ve enclosed direct quotes from Facebook posts in double quotes.

Our November project was an outhouse/toolshed. It was a fun project, one of those design-as-you-go structures. We’ve taken an option which our county offers: opting out of building codes. I’m willing to take full responsibility if the shed falls on someone or otherwise becomes a public menace!

Here’s the little shed during three phases of construction:




“I needed a shed door handle and didn’t want to drive to town for a Chinese stock handle from the hardware store. I walked out into the scrub with a battery-powered reciprocal saw, hoping that the powers of serendipity would favor me once again. A contorted mesquite root at the edge of a wash looked usable, so I cut it, took it back to the shed, and fitted it to the door. Total time for the project was one half-hour. On the left are the two stumps, on the right the mounted handle.”


Before we had a woodstove some of the November mornings were quite chilly and I’d make a little campfire near the cabin. Here’s Sage looking at me through the smoke:


Here’s a pre-sunrise photo I shot on the 6th of December:


That same week there were some nice morning clouds shrouding the Mule Mountains. We had had a nice rain the day before:


“This morning [Dec. 3rd] I surprised a Chihuahuan Desert Goblin slowly creeping past the south wall of our cabin. In exchange for a sip of coffee it agreed to pose for this photo.”


An assortment of dawn shots from late November and early December:





Sunrise and sunset on November 14th:


Some tree lizards sunning themselves on the cabin wall:


Dingo returning, curious as to what had detained me (I was photographing the Black-Spined Opuntia clump in the foreground):


There is a lot of contorted, dead, and dry mesquite wood in the desert around here which we burn for firewood, along with pecan branches from a nearby orchard:


The western frosty side of a long-dead mesquite burl:


Frost on my truck’s hood the morning of Dec. 7th, looking like a planet ascending:


A couple of musical photos taken by others. The first is a shot of Jamie and me playing at a Tucson steampunk tea party, and the second is John Cordes and I accompanying a California singer at St. Elmo’s in Bisbee:



A pair of Devil’s Claw photos; the first is a pod opening here in the cabin, and the second is of two pods which somehow had contrived to grasp a dead deer’s leg and foot:



The dawn on this Christmas morning:


Merry Christmas!


Agave Stalk Mystery

Last spring I felt the need of a walking stick. I thought a third leg would be helpful while negotiating steep canyon-sides and rocky washes. Luckily Southeast Arizona is well-supplied with several plants which have flower-stalks eminently suitable for use as walking sticks: the Agaves, the Yuccas, and the Sotols. My favorite is the stalk of a recently-deceased Agave palmeri. The stalks are light, easily cut, and last for at least a season of walking.

When I moved out to our unfinished cabin in the Sulphur Springs Valley I brought with me an agave stalk I had cut up on Juniper Flats. After a couple of hot and wind-swept months I retreated to the relative comfort of an apartment in Bisbee, complete with such amenities as a kitchen, internet, a shower, and a toilet, where I recovered my digestive equanimity and played a lot of music.

Meanwhile my agave stalk was shut up in the cabin through the months of July through October. Early this month I examined the stalk before setting out on a walk. Oddly enough, the stalk was studded with filmy tubes which spiraled up the shaft, delicate one-quarter-inch-long structures with thread-like filaments radiating from their ends:


A closer view:


What creature could have left these husks behind? Perhaps moth larvae which spent their summer happily feeding upon the pith which fills agave stalks?

There were several areas on the stalk which had the husks arranged in a spiral, as if the mother who had laid the eggs had wound her way around the stalk, methodically depositing eggs as she went:


I’ll have to ask questions of some naturalist friends, as this phenomenon puzzles me. Google certainly was not much help!


Birth Of An Electric Bass


It may seem like I’m overextending myself, but the fact remains that while I’ve been working on the Chinese upright bass I’ve also been assembling the components of an electric five-string fretless bass.

For a long time I’ve wanted to work with one or more of the woods in the Cupressus genus, the group which contains the true cypress species. My first choice was Arizona Cypress, a local wood, but the trees are scattered and rare, and I’m reluctant to deprive this mountain-and-desert region of even one of its iconic trees.

I turned my attention to one of the coastal species, Cupressus nootkatensis, commonly known as Alaska Yellow Cedar or Nootka Cypress. After some Googling I happened across the web-site of a Canadian violin-maker who mills instrument wood as a sideline. The shop is in southern Alberta, not far from the mountainous habitats of several coniferous tree species.

I ordered a few pieces of Nootka Cypress from the shop — clear, quarter-sawn old-growth wood. The parcel of wood meandered across the continent, for some reason passing through Toronto before heading west again.

Nootka Cypress only grows in a thin coastal strip extending from Alaska, down through British Columbia, and petering out in Oregon. The species is being stressed by the warming climate, as its shallow roots need snow cover to avoid damage during the coolest period; during recent decades that snow cover has been scanty. Many dead trees are now available, so that makes me a jackal feeding upon the corpses of northern forests. I can live with that! Here’s a photo of the glued-up body blank, the neck, the Pau Ferro fingerboard, along with the neck reinforcement pieces:


There is a Tlingit legend about the origin of killer whales which involves the yellow cedar tree. I read several English translations of the legend on various First Nations myth web-sites, but the Wikipedia version I think is the clearest and most succinct:

The tale begins with a young warrior Natsilane who is destined to become chief due to his skills, intelligence and generally pleasant demeanour. His brothers are extremely jealous of this, and plot to depose him. The brothers take Natsilane out to sea fishing, taking him further away from the shore than they have ever been before. As he becomes concerned, the brothers throw Natsilane overboard and row away.

As Natsilane is beginning to drown, he is found and rescued by Sea otter, who floats him to a large island saying it is too far back to the mainland for Sea otter to help him back. Instead, he promises to look after Natsilane and shows him the best hunting and fishing grounds. Once Natsilane is settled on his new island, alone, Sea otter confers one last gift to him, a pouch of seeds, and instructs Natsilane to sow them. Natsilane does so, and over the years the seeds grow into a bewildering array of different types of tree, all of which are now native in the Pacific Northwest. Natsilane uses wood from the trees to carve tools and a boat.

In appreciation of Sea otter, Natsilane then tries to carve a new totem. He tries all the trees, but settles on using a large Yellow Cedar tree and carves a huge fish from it, and leaves it on the shore for Sea otter to find. The next morning when Natsilane goes down to the shore, the fish carving is gone and in the bay is swimming Blackfish, the first killer whale. With a boat and supplies, Natsilane travels back to his home, guided by Blackfish. When he arrives, he finds his brothers out fishing again, squabbling. He orders Blackfish to destroy their boat and drown his brothers which it does immediately. When it returns, Natsilane orders that from this day forward it must never harm a human again, and that when it finds a human in trouble at sea it must help him. He then sends the whale off to sea. Natsilane returns to his village, which had been terrorised by his brothers, and becomes chief.

This legend inspires me to call the electric bass I’m putting together the Orca Bass. Perhaps I’ll carve an orca outline on the body of the instrument — perhaps wood-burned. A fantasy comes together in my fertile mind: Someday I’ll have this bass on board a whale-watching excursion boat, perhaps on a meander through the Queen Charlotte Islands. From the boat I’ll engage in a call-and-response exchange with a pod of orcas!


Chinese Bass Project

I play music quite often here in Bisbee with various local musicians. My main instrument is the fiddle, and playing fiddle is second nature for me these days. Bisbee has quite a few fiddle players, and sometimes there are more than enough fiddlers at a music session — but good upright bass players are in short supply.

Pondering this less-than-ideal situation it occurred to me that if I had an upright bass I could probably get up to speed on the awkwardly-large instrument and even things out a bit. After all, a double bass is just a fiddle writ large, and the tuning and intervals would be close to what I’m accustomed to.

So — off to the internet to see what might be available. I had recently decided to give up on the button accordion. I realized that I would never become a good player of that free-reed contraption. The dealer in Massachusetts from whom I’d bought the accordion agreed to buy it back from me, so I had some money to work with.

My options soon became clear. Buy a beat-up plywood student bass, or look to the Chinese workshops, actually small factories with CNC capabilities, and see what they had to offer. The violin I play these days was made near Shanghai and I’m more than satisfied with it. I looked at the Ebay store of a dealer who handles the output of the same factory which produced my violin and found a tempting deal.

I found an Ebay auction for a partially-completed 3/4-size upright bass. It has plywood sides and back, made seemingly of some species of poplar, a solid-spruce top, a maple neck, and an ebony fingerboard. No bridge, tuners, tail-pin, or soundpost, though. The price was right, even including the necessary accessories which I got from other Chinese vendors on Ebay.

Last week I walked down to the Bisbee post office to check my mail. I had Dingo, my dog, with me on a leash. After attaching Dingo’s leash to the bench out in front of the post office I walked in and unlocked my box. A notice within told me that I had a large parcel to pick up.

I walked up to the desk and spotted an enormous cardboard carton, six feet tall and three feet wide, standing near the shelves full of parcels. What else could it be than a bass?

I walked back to the apartment, indicated to Dingo that she should jump into my truck’s cab, and we drove back downtown.

The clerk at the PO let me use their dolly and I backed out of the building with the carton. A friendly man helped me to load the bass into my truck’s bed.

Once I had manhandled the large box up twenty-five steps and into my apartment I quickly opened up the cardboard carton, which had been very well packaged. Amidst a litter of cardboard prisms and sheets the body of a bass was soon revealed, along with a massive neck with the fingerboard glued on. All I had to do was put it together!

I enlisted the help of my co-tenant C-Sharp a day later. I bored a one-inch hole in the bottom of the bass while C-Sharp straddled and steadied it. I had a foam pad under the bass. Then I carefully reamed the hole to a taper which matched that of the end-pin. Being unwilling to spend hundreds of dollars for the proper reaming tool, I made do with a round surform rasp and a half-round file.

The next task was to glue the neck to the body. The neck came unattached so that the bass could be shipped via air freight to Bisbee for a reasonable sum. C-Sharp helped me with this task, and here is how it looked after a frenzied scramble with hot hide glue, a bar clamp, and a band tie-down:


After the clamps were removed and the bass had been restored to its more comfortable upright position:


The bridge and soundpost are the next challenges!


Dog Paradise

This morning I was up early, as usual. I have a new resident in my apartment, a local musician who had been all but homeless before I offered him a spare bedroom, and this time it was with the full consent of my landlady! I’ve been helping this guy get his financial situation in order, but the effort has been draining. I needed to get away from Bisbee for a while — much as I like this canyon town, sometimes things get weird and complicated, leading me to think my life is some sort of Truman Show soap opera.

I’ve been needing to see how the rough lane back to our cabin has fared after the recent torrential monsoon rains. My new dog Dingo (formerly Lydia) has never been back to the valley after her forced exile to Bisbee, the result of an unfortunate poultry-killing incident. So the dog and I headed out of town in my truck, bound for the Sulphur Springs Valley.

The lane back to the cabin was in remarkably good shape. The rains had actually made the road better, filling in persistent holes and in general evening it out. I parked by the cabin and marveled at how green the landscape was, very unlike the nuclear test zone appearance it had early in the summer. The dog leaped out of the truck and if she could talk, she might well have said “Larry, I don’t think we’re in Bisbee anymore!”


Dogs and desert washes are a natural match. Dingo raced up and down the intricate mazy networks of washes, surely smelling many exotic odors.



I walked down a few washes myself, looking for what plants might have been enjoying the copious rains. Here’s a succulent plant which I haven’t identified. This plant forms ephemeral low-lying mats of purple-green vining stalks with tiny reddish flowers:


Later I came to the conclusion that the fleshy-leaved plant was Portulaca umbraticola, or Wingpod Purslane, a native relative of the common European garden weed.

Plants which grow in the washes shed their seeds into the sand and gravel. The next big rain, which might be during next year’s monsoon season, will transport the seeds to new downstream sites.

The Devil’s Claw plants look like miniature trees, with fat trunks resembling those of the Baobab trees of the African continent. The fat green pods are fully developed now. When they dry out during the next inevitable dry spell the pods will split and assume their devilish seed-dispersal form, hooking on to any passer-by clad in either clothing or fur.


The area in which our lot is located was once laid out in a grid of four-acre lots. The boundaries are still visible in satellite photos. The lots were marketed in nationally-distributed magazines like Organic Gardening and Mother Earth news back in the sixties and seventies. “Retire in the sun! Inexpensive lots for your dream retirement cabin!” The lots were cheap and people all over the country bought them, only to find that no utilities were available. Many reverted back to the county due to unpaid back taxes.

Times have changed, solar electricity is cheaper than it’s ever been, and more people like Bev and myself are willing to put up with some minor inconveniences in order to avoid crowded cheek-by-jowl communities. The developer way back when even made a cursory effort to put culverts in the washes. These culverts are still around, but they were much too small to serve their intended purpose. Monsoon floods plugged them with sand and silt and occasionally groups of them can be found:


I can just imagine the expression of the hopeful developer who paid to have these culverts trenched in — once he had seen their fate! Dreams fading to ashes…