Glorious Scarab Riffs

Yesterday evening I was sitting out on the porch, enjoying the cool breezes and reading a novel. I looked up from the book, contemplating a particularly felicitous passage, and a glint of gold caught my eye. Something shiny was catching a stray sun-ray, some random bit of organic debris on the concrete porch floor. I put the book down, got up, and squatted by the glinting object. It was a dead scarab beetle of some sort. Its back was brilliantly striped with green and gold. The insect corpse looked like a piece of enamel-work, as if it had come from FabergĂ©’s workshop.

This morning I placed the dead creature on a slab of limestone out in the courtyard. I photographed it from various angles. I stood there looking at the beetle and wondered what to do with it. It seemed a shame to toss such a brilliant and finely-wrought relic of a beetle’s life into the weeds. I finally decided that the best thing to do was to give it to a sharp-eyed six-year-old boy, the son of a friend. That kid collects such things.

I identified the beetle, using the Kaufman insect field guide and the very useful web-site BugGuide . I’m reasonably certain that my beetle is Chrysina gloriosa, the Glorious Scarab Beetle. I posted the photo below to Facebook, but I thought there might be more to say about the photos I took than would be appropriate for such an ephemeral and commercial venue. I use Facebook daily, since many of my friends and family members do the same, but I don’t trust the site. I think that Facebook encourages short attention spans, and I like to keep my current span long!

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This evening I took a second look at my scarab photos. An aside: we tend to take for granted each new power technology grants us. Sometimes a sense of appreciative wonder is appropriate. The images produced by even cheap digital cameras these days are of such high resolution that cropping a small area and enlarging it can reveal marvelous hidden details. I was doing this with my scarab images, cropping, zooming, and wandering around a near-microscopic landscape. My attention was drawn to one of the creature’s front feet. What an intriguingly odd appendage! It looked like something from the Jurassic era, perhaps a flipper on a plesiosaur swimming in ancient seas… or perhaps a limb from one of the horrific creatures which populated H.P. Lovecraft’s fever-dreams:

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The rudimentary ridges on that foot — could they be the ancestral forms of our own fingers? And look at the scarab’s eye in that shot. Doesn’t it look like it’s glancing right at you? This is an unsettling illusion I first noticed when photographing moths years ago. I eventually realized that what looks like a pupil in the insect’s compound eyes is actually a reflection of the camera’s lens.

In this next zoomed view I was surprised to see a wickedly-armed hind foot on the beetle, which is a herbivore quietly subsisting on Alligator Juniper fronds. The foot looks like it bears a raptor’s talon, or the gripping claws of a Tyrannosaurus. The purpose of these appendages is probably just for holding on tight to branches while feeding, or for gripping a mate tightly while engaged in copulation.

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Since this particular scarab beetle was dead when I found it, it most likely had accomplished the humble tasks for which it had evolved. It left behind, though, an iridescent chitinous carcass which served to spark my imagination!

Larry

Low-rider Cactus

A couple of years ago I was wandering along the south-facing canyon slopes up above Bisbee, Arizona. I was near the crest in an area which had suffered a wind-driven burn a few years ago. The fierce blaze had killed off the Emory Oaks and all other trees. Blackened skeletal trunks were gradually being shaded and replaced by new sprouts, but at that time the area was dominated by grass, yucca, and agave. Regeneration after a hot fire takes decades.

It was pure serendipity, a gift from the gods, which allowed me to stumble upon a lone pancake-like cactus, a species of Mammillaria which I knew had been reported as growing in the Bisbee area, but which I had never seen before. Sometimes known as Cream Cactus due to it’s milky sap, this particular specimen was about nine inches in diameter but only an inch or so high; it was nearly invisible, surrounded as it was by clumps of the indigenous grasses Blue Grama and Sideoats Grama.

That was the only Cream Cactus I’ve ever seen after many miles of tramping around — until last week. I was taking photos in a miniscule park on Bisbee’s south side, a rough area paved with limestone fragments and supporting a thick growth of ocotillos and agaves. I was trying to avoid ocotillo thorns while positioning myself for a photo when I happened to look down and saw my second Cream Cactus right between my feet! This photo shows the faded remnants of this year’s flowers atop the nippled cactus, and I suspect the orange-brown ovoid in the lower-right corner of the scene might be a fallen fruit. Like many cacti, Mammillaria heyderii completes its reproductive duties before the monsoon rains arrive. I have yet to see one in bloom.

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Looking about on the web for possible human uses of this cactus I came across a quote from an ethnobotanical study:

Mammillaria heyderi is a little discussed species, which is reported to be used by the Tarahumaras. We first encountered this species in the Tarahumara-English dictionary compiled by the Swedish explorer Ivar Thord-Gray. Discussing sorcery and black magic among the Tarahumaras, Thord-Gray reports, that ‘only the shaman is umeru-ame (powerful) enough to locate wizards and witches. To do this he will make medicine from ball-cactus wichu-ri-ki, which is greatly feared for its magical powers. This medicine will clear his vision. It matters not how well the suku-ru-ame (wizard, witch) is hidden, the shaman can see him clearly’ …Not only is this cactus useful for locating wizards and supplying food, but it is also used as a medicine to cure or relieve headaches. ‘After the spines are removed, the plant is cut up into two or more pieces, roasted for a few minutes, and then part of the stuff is pushed into the ear.’ …(This) is corroborated by Bennett & Zingg, who describe the same manner of roasting the cactus before ‘the soft center in pushed into the ear in the case of ear-ache or deafness.’ Thord-Gray also reports that wichu-ri-ki is an important medicine that will prolong life, ‘make the foot light and increase the speed of a runner in a race.’ The Tarahumara name for the cacti listed by Bennett & Zingg is witculiki. Witculiki and wichu-ri-ki are possibly related to wichuwa-ka, which means ‘crazy, demented, mad, insane, etc.” (Bruhn and Bruhn, 1973)

Known in Spanish as “biznaga de chilillos,” with the edible red fruits called “chilitos.” This species, and other latex-containing Mammillarias are often sold in the drug stalls of Mexico and are used as popular folk remedies. M. applanata, M. hemisphaerica and M. Meiacantha are generally believed to be M. heyderi. 2/P, 10/P
N,-methyl-3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine

So the cactus was thought to prolong life, help you to run faster, and even cure an earache! No wonder there aren’t many left!

Larry

Before The Monsoon

During the oppressively dry summer weeks before the monsoon rains began to fall I was living out in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Looking north I could see mountains eighty miles away, and to the south, a bit closer, were mountains in Mexico. East and west, just a few miles away are the Swisshelm and Mule mountains. Over the past millions of years these mountains had shed alluvium which filled the valley a mile deep in sand and gravel. A vast sky — at any given time something meteorological was happening somewhere on the horizon, especially as evening shadows lengthened.

A fact of life out in the valley is that the rim mountains get twice as much rain as the valley does. It’s not fair, but since when has life been fair? The result is that during the dry weeks and months valley folks see more rain in the distance, over the mountains, than they directly experience.

One impressive sight, if a bit tantalizing, is a virga, a horse-tail-like plume of rain which evaporates in the dry atmosphere before it hits the ground. Here’s one I saw in May:

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Here’s another impressive May sky scene, a band of rain falling over the Mule Mountains a few miles to the west. This was a rain that Bisbee was getting, while the valley saw nary a drop. Beautiful sight, though!

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Cloudy tumult:

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There should be a word or phrase for the dry pre-monsoon weeks. Perhaps we could borrow a term from the early Christians. Antediluvian means “before the flood”; the Latinate word was coined to describe the era before Noah’s flood. How about antepluvial, a word I cobbled together from Latin words for “before” and “rains”. The word monsoon is a Southeast Asian word which was (according to legend) brought back by Air Force pilots returning from the Viet Nam conflict.

Another portentously beautiful cloud scene which yielded no rain:

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That central cloud mass intrigued me; it looked like a castle or spacecraft hovering above.

One cool morning in late April I was out wandering in the dry washes. The omnipresent mesquites were blooming and fungus-farming ants were busy snipping off mesquite flowers and leaves and conveying them to vast underground ant empires, where worker ants were chewing up the vegetative material for fungus compost.

On the bank of a wash not far from our cabin a tangled mass of greenery caught my eye. The vining plant bore flowers structurally reminding me of milkweed flowers. I eventually determined that the plant belonged to a genus related to Asclepias, the milkweed genus. The plant is called Twining Milkweed, or Fringed Twinevine, and its Latin name is Funastrum cyanthoides. The plant was growing lushly with no apparent source of water. The species must have a deep water-storing taproot!

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I’ve walked for miles along washes in the valley, and that one patch of Twinevine was the only one I ever encountered!

Larry

Underwing Musings

Last night I was about to turn in. I was outside, sitting in a lawn chair and reading a Kate Atkinson novel under a yellow bug-light.

A medium sized moth wandered by and it intrigued me with its coloration. I grabbed a handy cottage cheese container, captured the insect, and went to bed.

Today I gingerly peered into the container. The moth was sulking in a corner and wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I tipped the moth out of the container and went inside to fetch my camera.

By the time I got back the moth had revived and spread its wings. Such patterns on its wings! I snapped this photo as the moth valiantly tried to ignore me:

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As I watched this moth try to figure out what was going on I heard a still small voice in my head:

“More human meddling! My ancestors came to this canyon from Mexico soon after the last uplift, back when you busy primates were winkling grubs from hollow logs, mating indiscriminately, even with other primate species, and eating each other when such opportunities arose. We’ll still be here when when your species has squandered the opportunities you have been given and begin to suffer an extinction which all arthropods are patiently awaiting. Oh, I should except the bedbugs and cockroaches, they will miss you! And the blackflies of the North will be desolate.”

I thought “Well, this might be true, but I have some short-term motivations. I’d like one more photo; perhaps a frontal view which shows those distinctive red leg-ruffs?”

“Well, I can’t stop you, but do you have to put photos of me on Facebook? My peers will make fun of me, I’m afraid!”

“I’ll put a link to a separate blog-post — how about that?”

“Humph! I don’t even know why I’m even bothering to talk with you…”

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Larry

Travails of a Man And Two Insects

After a rather difficult period living out in the Sulphur Springs Valley during a remarkably hot and dry early summer, I succumbed to a desire for a bit of civilized life. Hell, I’m sixty years old. I don’t have the stamina for such primitive conditions that I once had!

I rented an apartment in Bisbee, a canyon town one thousand feet higher in elevation, and I’m now indulging myself in such luxuries as plumbing, a kitchen, and wifi net access.

The house I’m staying in is nestled in a notch blasted from the steep canyon slope. High retaining walls surround the house and courtyard. A dozen or so steps lead down to the street, a loop up the slope from the main drag, Tombstone Canyon Road.

One morning last week I walked down the steps to the street. I encountered a man in his mid-sixties who was patching some bad spots in the asphalt. It turned out that he owns the house across the street and had become frustrated by the City of Bisbee’s lack of attention to the pitted street surface. He and some other residents are pooling their resources and fixing the street themselves. Many of these home-owners, including the man I was talking with, would like to sell their houses — but the market is bad right now.

Taking a break from his work, the man told me a tale of woe, a personal drama of a type not uncommon in this border region. It seems that seven years ago this man was 56 years old and had never been married. He was on a vacation in the town of Animas, a small resort town nestled at the base of the Sierra Madre, in the southern part of the Mexican state of Sonora. A Mexican waitress served him food in a restaurant and, mirabile dictu, he fell in love with her. The waitress had recently been abandoned by her husband and she had small children to raise. A factor which this newly-wed man didn’t consider all that important, but which would cause problems later, is that his new wife was twelve years younger than him.

Now the man and his family have a house in Animas, but after years of effort they have been unable to acquire residency, neither for her in the US nor him in Mexico. This guy has reduced his goals after so much frustration with government agencies, who collectively seem to be convinced that the marriage is a scam, a nefarious way to gain a green card for his wife. After seven years all that the man wants is for his Social Security check go to his family after he dies. Even that seems nearly impossible — the estimates the man has heard are daunting; it could cost upwards of seventy thousand bucks to achieve that goal, which seems to be reserved for the wealthy.

I sympathized with this man, but realized that there wasn’t much I could say. I’m no fan of the INS and the Border Patrol. This part of Arizona is crawling with green-and-white SUVs, a result of massive paranoia-induced funding in the years since 9/11. We have internal checkpoints here — did you know that? I can’t drive to Tucson without having to stop and be screened by the armed Border Patrol officers at one checkpoint or another. Instead of Checkpoint Charlie we have Checkpoint Carlos, so to speak.

After hearing this man’s tale I headed up the steps to my apartment, feeling a bit down. I was ready for some contact with non-human creatures which lead uncomplicated lives, or at least lives which are more patterned and predictable.

Lately I’ve been seeing a distinctive large bug, a true bug in the order Hemiptera, which has scarlet-tipped antennae and feet. I’d tried to photograph this species, but they kept trotting away and wouldn’t pause long enough to get a good focused shot. That morning, after my long conversation with the neighbor related above, I encountered yet another example of that large bug species. It was walking purposefully across the graveled courtyard. I found a plastic cottage cheese container in the kitchen and before the bug knew what was happening I had captured the hapless creature in the container and put it in the fridge in order to slow it down for a while.

Since I first encountered this bug I had determined its species; I’m reasonably sure that these bugs are Giant Agave Bugs (Acanthocephala thomasi), herbivores which feed upon agave and other desert plants. After a few minutes I took the container from the fridge and shook the chilled bug out onto the brick paving in the courtyard. It seemed confused and couldn’t control its legs very well, possibly thinking about the Cold Dark Place to which I had condemned it for a time.

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Even partial sun here in Arizona is quite powerful. Dappled light under a mulberry tree was more than enough to get bug blood flowing!

This bug belongs to a group called the Leaf-footed Bugs. I assume the leafy vanes on the hind legs are a form of camouflage, but I wonder what the saw-tooth spikes are for? Maybe stridulation? A secure grip while mating?

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The bug seemed to be regaining consciousness and I could see it surveying the scene. It’s not surprising that the bug was heading away from me, the monstrous creature that had imprisoned it in the Cold Dark Place. The bug spread its wings and wing-covers and flew up onto a green plastic watering can.

“Green! It must be an agave!”

No such luck, but the corrugated handle of the watering can made a nice backdrop for a photo;

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The Giant Agave Bug flew away, possibly sensing a pheromone trail, but there is a postscript to this tale. This morning I was sitting out on the porch when I saw something small walking directly towards me across a graveled area in the courtyard. I first noticed this creature when it was about ten feet away; as it approached I realized that it was another Giant Agave Bug. Curious, I watched as it approached the concrete slab porch floor, which was elevated above the gravel a few inches. A fanciful thought occurred to me: what if this was the same bug I had photographed a few days earlier?

The bug climbed the vertical edge of the concrete porch floor and headed for my bare foot. Perhaps it was thinking:

“I hope that this enormous god-like being will put me back in the Cold Dark Place for a while. It’s just so hot out in the sun today!”

The bug climbed up onto my big toe and advanced across my instep. It certainly seemed determined! It found the cuff of my jeans and began to ascend my shin. It clambered up over the knob of my knee, then kept walking up my thigh. When it approached my crotch I had had enough. I gave it a light flick of my finger and it flew away. The idea of that bug crawling into my ear canal or nostril had occurred to me.

A day after I refrigerated the Giant Agave Bug I was once again sitting out on the porch. A fairly large Chinese Privet tree shades that side of the courtyard. Some motion on the tree’s trunk caught my eye. Some strange-looking gray insect was slowly climbing the tree. I looked closer; it was a large sphinx moth, but the wings looked shrunken and deformed:

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I went back into the house and ate some lunch: leftover Basmati rice with tempeh. My curiosity was aroused, though — what was going on with that weird and monstrous moth. Half an hour had passed by the time I once again regarded my mothy visitor. The wings were bigger… it dawned on me that I was witnessing a biological transformation I’d read about but never witnessed. The moth had just emerged from an underground pupa, and its wings were being pumped full of a fluid which would gradually harden and enable flight.

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I gently encouraged the insect to crawl onto my hand. I imagine it was distracted by its morphological changes, and begrudgingly acquiesced to my silent entreaty; perhaps it had heard of the Cold Dark Place and thought it would comply in order to avoid such exile.

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Another few minutes passed after I let the moth crawl back onto the tree trunk. I left it alone for a while, thinking that if I had fluid stiffening in my veins I might not want company. I do have a modicum of empathy with my insect friends!

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The next time I checked the moth was gone, most likely soaring along the canyon slopes in search of a mate.

Larry

Bad Women and Writhing Leafy Tentacles

The monsoon season has arrived here in Southeast Arizona, and people in general here are happier. Towering cumulus clouds fill the afternoon sky and all of Cochise County has been blessed with rain.

People had been getting cranky and irritable during those endless hot and cloudless days of May and June, myself among them. What had we done to deserve such unrelenting dryness? People I know who are in their seventies and eighties were prone to nostalgically reminisce about those halcyon days when they first moved here. “It used to rain all summer!”

One elderly woman said to me “I know just how long this drought has been going on! My son is twenty-five years old and he was born during the last really wet summer we’ve had since then.”

This morning, after a night of gentle rain, the air was cool and moist and I felt like a walk. I drove to a small rocky park on the south side of Bisbee, a scant few acres of sloping land on the borders of a wash. The park is bordered by Highway 92 on one side and several suburban developments on the other.

The park is dominated by radiating clumps of ocotillo, Palmer’s Agaves, and Little-leaved Sumac. A path winds through it and with my camera in hand I stayed on that path for a short time, then drifted off into the thorny and newly-leafy landscape.

I noticed numerous clumps of a white-flowered plant, the Malo Mujer, which means Bad Woman. This plant is a monsoon opportunist, quickly springing up, flowering, and setting seed while there is moisture.

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Why is this plant compared to a bad woman? The answer is in the beautiful spiny leaves, which can cause excruciating pain and swelling to susceptible people who handle them. The leaves have never affected me, though I haven’t rudely squeezed them or rubbed them all over my face. I’m reasonably cautious with plants of bad repute. The leaves are ephemerally fleshy and quite beautifully patterned:

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A closer view of the spines. What might be that milky ichor or fluid at the base of the spines, which reminds me of venom?

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Ocotillos are such strange creatures. The slender trunks radiate out from a central woody base and they only have leaves during wet periods. As soon as the dryness returns the fleshy small leaves wither and fall off. The trunks have areas of green chlorophyll and transform sunlight into carbohydrates between leafy periods. The trunks aren’t ever straight. They look as if they had been writhing, only stopping when a human glances at them. Perhaps that is what they do when they are alone! Less fancifully, I think they slowly writhe away from each other, always seeking light. A years-long time-lapse sequence of photos would be quite interesting to see.

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The leafy trunks glow, backlit by the morning sunlight, creating an aura of spring-green around the wiry trunks:

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Here’s a close-up shot of partially-developed ocotillo leaves emerging from the woody trunk, which seems to reveal waxy-looking innards between scurfy areas of bark:

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The flower-clusters grow at the tips of the cane-like trunks. They can appear several times every year, like the leaves requiring a rainy period. The scarlet clusters are a characteristic sight during wet periods in the Chihuahuan desert, most of which is in Mexico.

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A closer look:

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It’s wonderful to see the desert come to life after a long hot dormant period!

Larry

A Walk To A Distant Barn

What a dry winter we’ve had in Southeast Arizona! It hasn’t rained significantly since late November and the soil is parched and dusty.

Lately Bev and I have been building a small cabin out in the Chihuahuan desert scrub, surrounded by vast expanses of mesquite, tar-bush, and white-thorn acacia. The drought conditions are causing the area to be quite dusty, but the flawless cirrus-streaked sky and the surrounding mountains compensate.

Yesterday I drove the pickup out to the property with a load of Douglas fir rafters for the cabin. After stacking the boards in the shade of the north side of the structure, I looked out across the wash-dissected scrub. A tin roof visible towards the north-west has been intriguing me. It’s difficult to estimate distances out there, but the old barn looked to be two or three miles away. It was a beautiful morning so I set off walking.

It’s an easy landscape to walk across, as there are an infinite number of pebble-paved corridors between the low woody shrubs and small trees. The mountain ranges on the eastern and western edges of the valley helped me stay oriented. I was glad of that because within five minutes I had lost sight of both the cabin and my destination.

The shallow sandy washes meander everywhere. I must have crossed a dozen of them before I neared the barn. My route took me closer to the Mule Mountains and I began to see signs of higher-elevation plants such as ocotillo and yucca.

I saw no signs of animal life on this walk, but lately I’ve been puzzled by little heaps of peculiar turds which I surmise are the scat of some reptile. The small heaps of coiled poop are always in the shade of a mesquite or tar-bush, and they remind me of demonic Cheerios:

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One of these days I’ll surprise and embarrass a reptile in the act of adding to one of these piles!

I walked on, occasionally passing a tire track left by a rancher who runs a few cattle in this part of the valley.

Here’s my first sight of the barn, which seemed to have doubled as a house at one time:

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As I approached the dilapidated structure I noticed a water trough and what looked like a well-head and pressure tank. Cow-pies became more common.

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Bees and small birds were visiting this water trough, which is probably the only source of open water within a mile. The structure behind the trough is partially made of adobe.

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A rusty water tank is perched atop a steel trestle and can be seen in this view from inside the barn and former residence. The drought, which has been going on for twenty years, has killed a tree which once shaded the barn. A limb has fallen onto the tank and will doubtless remain there for decades before rotting away. Fungi have a very short growing season in this climate:

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I examined an adobe wall, a collage of mud, stones, straw, chunks of embedded wood, and two anomalous cockleburs:

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A view of a kitchen which was last cooked in decades ago:

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The curling tiles still adhering to the kitchen counter reminded me of dried and warped tiles of mud in a dry river-bed:

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Looking away from the barn I noticed a humped silhouette a hundred yards away. I walked over to see what it was and found this ancient automobile carcass. The roof was caved in, bullet-holes riddled the doors, and the undercarriage had been removed. The shell left behind reminded me of the cast-off carapace of a cicada:

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Nestled in the smashed-down roof of the coupe was what looked like one of the original door handles. The elements have left a pleasingly-pitted patina on the lever, a product of the toil of some long-dead Detroit worker in another century:

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While walking back I got lost for a while and finally came across the cabin by chance.

Larry

A Worried Hawk

Recently I stumbled across a batch of photos languishing in a digital thicket, way back in the hinterlands of a hard drive. I pulled them loose from drifts of pixel debris, wiped them off, and realized that I had meant to write a post about the circumstances surrounding those images.

One day last December Bev and I drove downtown to visit the library and the post office, ready for a fix of what Henry Thoreau called “an influx of novelty”. We parked in a large lot behind a coffee shop. This lot adjoins a sloping concrete retaining wall, a bulwark which discourages Highway 80 from sliding down and obliterating downtown Bisbee.

Just as we pulled into a parking slot something clumsily flew across our field of vision. It seemed to be a raptor carrying something heavy in its claws. The bird abruptly landed or collided with the ramped concrete wall. I’d forgotten to bring my camera, but Bev had hers with her. I rolled down my window and got some shots, but I needed to get closer. The bird and its prey, which seemed to be a common rock dove, an alien city pigeon, was about thirty feet away. As seen through the truck window:

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I slowly exited the truck and crept closer. The bird, which turned out to be a Cooper’s Hawk, was having problems and paid no attention to me. The hawk had a large and succulent piece of prey in its clutches but the wall was too steep to perch upon, and the hawk kept sliding down. I squatted down behind a steel grid anchored into a low wall and shot some more photos:

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I was about ten feet from the avian drama and I used the camera’s built-in zoom. The hawk managed to find some footing, glanced at me, and began to pluck down from the pigeon’s breast. I think that the impact when the hawk collided with the wall might have killed the pigeon, as it certainly looked dead by this time. Tufts of down floated in the air as the hawk impatiently flung them away:

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The hawk’s head is blurred in this shot, but it shows the characteristic mantling behavior hawks use when they want to shield the fresh prey from sight. As if to say, “Don’t even think about stealing this, human!”

The hawk and its prey began to slide again. As it neared the bottom I think the hawk may have realized that this was not an ideal setting for a meal.

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Once the hawk was down at the parking lot level I think it became more aware of me. I wished I had been quick enough to get a shot of it flying overhead with the dead pigeon dangling limply, but the bird was gone within seconds.

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It’s not often that such a scene presents itself!

Larry

Oak-leaf Funeral Procession

After a long day of driving last November we pulled into a campground at Twin Bridges State Park in northeast Oklahoma. The campground is on the shores of a man-made lake called The Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, a name which seems to be a slim compensation for the tribe’s forced removal back in Andrew Jackson’s time. The lake was formed after a branch of the Neosho River was dammed back in 1940.

The campground is shaded by post oaks, gnarled and not very tall trees which to me were a sign that we were on the verge of the Great Plains. Recent rains had brought down many of the distinctive stellate leaves of this species and they formed a crisp and rustling carpet on the ground.

Right next to the graveled parking lot I spotted a colony of delicate brown mushrooms, each one seeking a path to the open air through the loose layers of oak leaves. They seemed intent upon their spore-dispersal duties and barely noticed me at all as I knelt down with my camera.

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In my usual fancifully anthropomorphic fashion I imagined that the erect fungi were supporting one particular leaf upon their caps and stems, slowly bearing it to its final resting place.

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These are familiar colors and textures to me. Mushrooms which feed upon oak leaves often seem to have colors which harmonize with the hues of the leaves, and the slightly viscid texture of the fungal flesh contrasts nicely with the hard, crisp surfaces of the leaves. A closer view:

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Visual encounters like this always cheer me up and feed my fancies!

Larry

A Private Gray Landscape

During November of last year Bev and I were on our way to Bisbee. We’re a bit picky about campgrounds, preferring remote spots without many camping “neighbors”.

As we approached Tucson a campground east of the city looked promising on the map. It was tucked into a canyon at the base of Mt. Lemmon and for some reason had been named Peppersauce Campground. The road to the campground meandered down from the interstate heights and wasn’t very well marked. We weren’t sure we were on the right road until we saw the campground entrance.

The campground wasn’t crowded, had potable water, and only cost ten bucks. Enormous sycamores shade the campsites, which are strung out along a rocky dry stream-bed.

A nice spot, but well-worn by legions of campers. I enjoy getting away from the evidence of other campers. The federal National Forest workers keep the obvious litter picked up, but any place visited by so many people has bits of paper, cigarette butts, bottle lids and such detritus worked into the dusty soil, so eventually I’ll venture out in search of places which have been neglected.

The morning we left I was up early; after brewing and drinking some coffee I walked away from the fire-rings and trash receptacles. The sky was overcast and there wasn’t a trace of a breeze. I climbed over a fence, crossed the access road, and made my way up a thorny steep slope.

I can’t say I really enjoy thorny and brushy barriers but they do serve to keep casual walkers out. I was just thirty feet from the road and found myself in a place with real character, one of those corners of the natural world which are rarely visited and thus have been allowed to develop a strong ecological identity. Gray boulders and outcrops were shaded and penetrated by gray-trunked trees. The gray sky and dim dawn light helped create a monochrome scene, subdued and quiet.

The trees weren’t large but seemed old, mostly a Southwest species related to the Eastern hackberry. I believe they were Celtis laevigata var. reticulata, the Netleaf Hackberry. The slope with its embedded boulders seemed to have discouraged cattle from their usual depredations

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Some of the intertwined trees seemed to have sustained bark damage, probably due to rocks tumbling down the slope.

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Fallen leaves, both from the hackberries and from the surrounding mesquites, had gathered in drifts among the rocky ledges. I could tell that they hadn’t been rained upon since they had fallen.

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The eastern hackberries with which I’m most familiar have gray bark like this species, but the trunks are crowded with canyon-like terraced furrows. In contrast, these trees have warty excrescences surrounded by smooth bark. The warty areas sometimes look like corky breaking waves, while others resemble some sort of ancient calligraphy:

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I enjoyed this ephemeral scene, a tiny strand of dried grass, with a bit of green still apparent, lodged in a warty crevice:

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Here’s a hackberry which blew over, perhaps because its roots had been undermined by some burrowing creature. A shoot sprouted from the prostrate trunk and headed for the light. Perhaps after a few more decades the fallen trunk will sink beneath the surface and the origin of the new trunk will be concealed from view:

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A rain-shower or two will dim the luster and colors of these fallen leaves which have found a refuge in the root-instep of a hackberry:

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After spending some time soaking up the ambience of the place I ventured into an area dominated by old and gnarled mesquite trees. The focus is a bit off, but this shot shows an expanse of contorted mesquite bark. The mesquite leaflets caught in the furrows of the bark reminded me of frail boats struggling to stay afloat in a choppy sea:

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Before I descended to the road I had an encounter with a javelina. The animal burst out of a thicket just as I emerged from another clump of mesquite. We stood facing each other for about ten seconds. We were about fifteen feet apart. I was downwind and I don’t think the javelina knew what I was. I made a small movement but that was enough to spook the creature and it plunged back into the mesquite bosque. I enjoyed this brief encounter!

By the time I had returned to the campground the sun had appeared. I walked down the dry river-bed to re-visit a remarkable sycamore tree I had seen the evening before. It’s one the largest Arizona sycamores I’ve ever seen. The trunk is short but stout, perhaps five feet in diameter.

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I squatted near the trunk and noticed that a chunk of river rock had been gradually surrounded by the tree. Maybe in a few more decades the rock will be completely immersed in woody tissue!

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The branches of these sycamores often extend horizontally to a remarkable extent:

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By this time I was ready for some breakfast!

Larry